This July 4th, What Would Abe Lincoln Say? by SWC's Harold Brackman

This July 4th, What Would Abe Lincoln Say? by SWC's Harold Brackman

As people across the US begin to celebrate the founding of the United States this coming fourth of July, the U.S. is going through another “time that tries men’s souls.” We ask what Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, would think and what counsel he would give us?

“Father Abraham,” whose life story was translated into both Hebrew and Yiddish, was beloved and revered by Jews and not only in this country. His iconic gesture in their behalf was reversing General Grant’s cruel Civil War order barring Jewish merchants from Tennessee, ostensibly because they could not be trusted not to betray the Union by trading with the Southern rebels.

But his tolerance for Jews, and for immigrants and religious minorities, was not limited to that.

Reverend Martin Niemoller, imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and Dachau,  and almost executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, is famous for saying: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

But much earlier, Abraham Lincoln, in a 1855 letter to his close friend Joshua Speed, when the new Republican Party was being riven by conflict whether it should embrace or reject the anti-immigrant principles of the Know Nothing movement, wrote: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal’. We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes’. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics’. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

President Abraham Lincoln was a tender-hearted man who pardoned a young soldier who had been sentenced by a court martial to being shot for falling asleep on guard duty. Who can doubt how he would have felt about separating parents, no matter their immigrant status, from their children on our Southern border?

Abraham Lincoln also was resolute in defending the territorial integrity of the United States—from the first shot fired on Fort Sumter by the Confederacy to his own assassination near the Civil War’s end in April, 1865. To protect and defend the Union and free enslaved African Americans, he took actions, stretching his powers under the Constitution, far beyond anything that has been done recently. Yet his actions always balanced head and heart, resolve with compassion.

Abraham Lincoln also learned from his own mistakes. As a young aspiring political candidate in Illinois, he cruelly satirized both on the political stump and in the newspapers Democratic opponents of his beloved Whig Party. Yet by 1858, when he debated Stephen Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois which Douglas ultimately won, Lincoln had learned to disagree without rancor. He set an example of reasoned debate over slavery expansion that has been a model for American politicians who love their country ever since. After Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, defeating Stephen Douglas, and the Civil War came, Douglas patriotically stood by Lincoln and the Union. Unfortunately, “The Little Giant” from Illinois died soon after the war’s outbreak broke his heart.

Lincoln the Whig-Republican and Douglas the staunch Democrat look down from on high today, along with other great Americans who won the presidency or lost it, demanding that we too strive to disagree passionately but agreeably, and do not dishonor the example they set. It is time once again, as Lincoln implored, “too bind up the nation’s wounds,” this time before real blood is shed over differences that must be debated but ultimately settled by civil discourse and by patriotic compromises that don’t violate our shared principles and values—however hard it may be to achieve common ground.

In 1963 a hundred years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on the DC Mall his “I Have A Dream” speech hoping that “one day . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Yet today there are those who question whether Reverend King really believed that it was possible to marry an ethic of civility and tolerance to a commitment to social change. In our age of “in your face” political confrontation, it is important to remember that King—like Lincoln—saw no contradiction between civility and tolerance, on the one hand, and change-oriented politics on the other.

Reverend King not only marched arm-in-arm with allies like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he also never demonized his opponents. Instead, he believed in “a loving community” that sought to win them over. Indeed, even Alabama Governor George “In the Schoolhouse Door/Segregation Forever” Wallace ultimately converted to King’s moral logic.

Reverend King did indeed criticize demands for “moderation” when they were a cop-out for inaction. But he understood that avoidance of immoderate extremism was essential to the success of democratic (small “d”) politics. This is why he collaborated politically with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson even while keeping the heat on them to make concessions for civil rights progress.

In different ways, President Lincoln and Reverend King were both practitioners of the American political tradition at its best. Seems everyone in DC today should take a course in Abraham Lincoln 101 as well as MLK’s philosophy of nonviolent protest without hatred or rancor.


*A long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, Dr. Brackman, is author with Ephraim Isaac (an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant and scholar) of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press, 2015).